“Hey. Hey, buddy.”
I didn’t respond. I hoped the voice wasn’t directed at me.
“Hey,” the unfamiliar voice said again, closer now. “Hey. Hey, buddy.”
I looked up, the book open in my hands.
I was greeted with a disarming grin, beaming from the face of an individual I vaguely recognized, an individual my age. He was black (black people are the masters of disarming grins). He was clean-cut, with a close shaved head, standing tall and bright and alive in crisp blue jeans and the distinctive Cal Bears long-sleeved shirt that was the bookstore’s uniform. A laminated photo ID hung by lanyard from around his neck. His grin told me that I had nothing to fear.
“Hey,” I said.
“Um. Do you need help finding anything?” he asked, but still with that no-harm-meant grin.
“No,” I shook my head.
A couple kids our age shouldered past us. The college kids, the kids who were supposed to be here. I tried not to notice them.
“You sure?” he asked, his grin taking on a strangely intimate element of concern.
“No, really,” I shook my head again, a little too vigorously. “I’m just, you know, looking.”
“You aren’t a student here are you?”
“No,” I grunted.
Jig’s up. Let the orders to vacate commence.
But no, I was wrong. His grin stayed strong and bright, almost as if he were expecting this.
I wasn’t sure what to think. It honestly seemed that right now he wanted nothing more than to know more about me. As if I were an unusual scientific specimen that had wandered onto a petri dish.
He nodded at the book.
“What’s that you’re reading?”
I closed it so I could show him the cover, though out of habit I kept my thumb marking the page I was at. Not that I was going to finish my reading. Sadly, this was pretty much a foregone conclusion. Even if he did decide to let me be, there was no way I’d be able to relax enough to resume activity.
“Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death,” he read. “Huh.”
I watched him. His grin faded slightly, left a shadow of careful understanding in its place. I’d seen that sort of understanding before, too. Usually it didn’t survive the first major confusion.
“Why you reading that,” he asked, “if you don’t even go to school here?”
“It’s interesting,” I said.
“You like reading textbooks?”
“Some of them.”
“Something particularly fascinating about this book?”
“Well,” I shrugged, and I gave him the first answer that came to mind, though it wasn’t strictly the truth: “Not really.”
For some reason, this made him laugh, and his grin became genuinely genuine.
“The reason I came up to you…” he went on, “is I recognize you from somewhere.”
“You live in Berkeley?”
I nodded. Was it so obvious? Not a student, neither by look or admission.
“I thought so. I think you were a customer somewhere else I worked.”
Now I too was curious. I wanted to know where he knew me from, and why he seemed intent on sharing with me his good nature. So now I felt some pressure, because now I had to reciprocate:
“Where else have you worked?” I asked.
Sure enough, he withdrew and his grin wavered. I’d gone too far. I always do that.
“Well, I was waiting tables over at Homemade Café for a while last year, last summer,” he offered, a perfectly normal response, a perfectly popular restaurant.
No, that wasn’t it.
“I also worked at Barnes & Nobles on Shattuck,” he continued. “Before they closed it down.”
That must be it.
“That’s it, isn’t it?” he said.
I said no more. Yes, that was quite as far as I intended to pursue this particular story line. I was probably one of the only people in Berkeley to have been relieved when the Barnes & Nobles had closed down. There had been a period of time, a few years, to be honest, where I couldn’t comfortably walk down that stretch of Shattuck Avenue. A sense of impending embarrassment would douse me in cold sweat, only to relieve when I turned the corner or crossed the street. If this guy recognized me from Barnes & Nobles, I was in for it. I tried not to give anything away, but he must’ve noticed something in me:
“Why do I recognize you?” he persisted, his grin in danger of disappearing altogether. “Were you a regular?”
“I’m… Well. Yes. I mean, I’m a big reader,” I managed, “and I like bookstores. I like books. I don’t always buy them, but I like to read them.”
“So I saw you in there?”
“Huh. You must have stood out.”
“I guess cause I was browsing so much. Eventually they told me that I couldn’t come back.”
His smile pulled inward and his eyes slitted. He shook his head, ever so slightly. A silence held and became awkward, and he turned briefly away from me, craning his neck over the bookshelf as if he’d heard something. Then he looked back at me, his grin renewed.
“Most Berkeley-ites don’t usually come to this store for browsing,” he said.
“You can’t find textbooks like this anywhere else,” I said.
“That’s true,” he answered, then he laughed. “I guess that’s cause nobody wants to read them.”
“Well,” I said.
He smiled again. He took a few steps back.
“Well,” he said, amiably, “I hope you have a good day, Jonathon. Take as much time as you need.”
What? What? What?
Gratefulness washed over me like a dash of water.
“Okay,” I said. “Thanks,” I said, and I meant it. This was one of the nicest things anybody had done for me in a long time. It felt strange. I didn’t know what to do with it.
“Don’t worry about it.”
“My name’s Trevor,” he said, and extended his hand.
I looked at it. I looked at him. His disarming grin was back, wide as it had ever been. This was strange. This was encouraging. He didn’t think I was so bad. He saw me as someone not beyond compassion, not beyond repair. Black people often have this initially accommodating quality. It was understandable. They could probably rattle off half a dozen people way worse than me. But then again, they usually didn’t get to know me so well either.
I reached out and shook his hand.
“And what’s your name?” he said slowly, emphasizing “your.”
“Jonathan. Jonathan Billings.”
“Okay,” he said and laughed again. “Have a good day, Jonathan. You seem to be an interesting cat. It makes me feel good to do right by an honest book lover. Maybe next time you come in you can buy something then.”
He clapped me on the shoulder. Companionable and manly and wholly un-homoerotic. What a great gesture. What a cool guy.
I looked over my shoulder at him as he passed, and indeed, he walked fast and assured and turned the next corner in the stacks with just as much assurance, his mind already resetting to whatever challenge his freedom-packed life would offer him next.
A student. I could see it in his walk.
Huh. How about that.
That had been unexpected. Maybe I was alright after all. Maybe it was okay that I stood out so obviously.
I stood a little longer with the book. I even considered opening it up again. It really was a good book. I really was getting something out of it.
But then I saw another lanyard-wearing employee approaching, and I realized it was time to make myself scarce.
I replaced The Denial of Death on the shelf, and I left, with a slight welling of irritation at this stupid Trevor for preventing me from fully enjoying my chapter of this book.
And yet, later that week, by some unfamiliar combination of motivations that I’ll choose not to closely analyze, I chose to return to the Bears’ Lair Books.
This time of year, when the school year was right around the corner, a store like this would be at its busiest. Outside, University and Telegraph Avenues were thick with bright, clean, fresh-faced freshmen, as was the campus itself. Groups of ebullient youngsters, like me in age alone. Walking packs of grins and laughing innocence. You couldn’t help but resent their recognizability.
We’re not all hippies, we Berkeley-ites, not by a long shot, though supposedly we’re one of the only places in the country where the genuine article still exists. I know I look the part, but it’s not intentional. My appearance modifies itself. I have nothing to do with it. Sure, I can make myself presentable when I really try, but it never lasts. I can watch where I step, wipe my shoes when I walk through a door, change my shirt every day and shower every morning. I can color-coordinate when I dress, and I can make sure that my jeans are washed once a week. But I inevitably let my guard down. The cuffs of my jeans become worn and threaded. Long-sleeved flannel shirts become my choice of default. My hair, well, I haven’t combed it in years. I cut it myself, mostly the back, just so I don’t look like a girl, which my childhood classmates used to accuse me of, back in the day, permanently scarring me. The image I cut, shambling along with my dirty old backpack, my messy mop of hair, my dirty jeans and threadbare shirts, I know it’s the kind of thing people who don’t know Berkeley might stop and marvel at. They might wonder what I do to pass my days, how I could have got like this, why I don’t clean myself up and get a job. Well, most of the time I’d be hard pressed to answer. What can I say. It’s just who I am. Even crossing over into Oakland or El Cerrito feels like entering a foreign country (or how entering a foreign country must feel for regular people — I don’t even want to speculate).
How strange then to find myself drawn so strongly and decisively to the beating shining heart of the one place in my city I feel the least comfortable. Maybe this was my subconscious, having run out of all other options, finding one last way to kick-start me. People always talk of the subconscious as if it’s smarter than the person, outwitting us at every turn and making us guess. I guess it is. According to Ernest Becker and the rest of the psycho psychologists, it knows something we don’t. Even when we hate it, we would always do well to respect it. You never know what it’s going to do.
In the bookstore’s freshest of freshmen crowd, I was reasonably safe. As long as I avoided eye contact they would probably allow me my space relatively un-judged. For these first few days, they were the intruders, not me.
I wandered. They walked by me and around me. I found a textbook on European art history. I found a reading chair by the wall and I took a half an hour and I read a chapter. I even thought of buying it. More like I thought about what it would be like being able to buy it. Because no, this wasn’t an option. I have enough to get by, but I don’t spend easily. I probably could buy it, if I really wanted. But then, there goes about half of that week’s unemployment check.
After about an hour, I stood up. I was feeling my oats. I’d been watching the crowd, and you know what, they weren’t so bad. Sure, they were rich, sure, they were innocent, sure they had the world at their feet and they didn’t even know it. But you know what, I have something that they don’t. I have experience. I have authenticity. I know who I am, I know what life is like. They have no idea. If I wanted, I could eat each and every one of them for breakfast.
Anyways, I’d had enough.
I put the textbook back where I’d found it, and I headed for the exit.
And there, taped to the glass doors with the bright sunlight shining on beyond them, (somehow I must have missed it on the way in), there was a sign. A sign that until not too long ago used to be a fairly common sight, but was now a testament in itself. I’ve seen it. Even those who have jobs. These days, everybody pauses a moment at these signs, turn their heads to read as they walk by on their way.
I did too.
I stood at the door, and I looked at the sign.
Orange block lettering, black background, white border. Blank white strip underneath where the details for the position should have been, but weren’t.
‘Help Wanted’ is what it said.
Isn’t it always.